As the anger over the treatment of unmarried mothers and babies in Tuam, County Galway where 800 babies ended up in a mass grave has increased, other unmarried mother institutions are again being examined.
The doctor who shut down the unmarried mothers home run by the Sacred Heart nuns in Bessborough, County Cork in 1951 left a vivid memoir in which he recounts how dreadful and fatal the conditions were there.
Dr. James Deeny, the health board’s Chief Medical Officer, visited Bessborough to investigate the horrific death rate in the home, where 100 out of 180 babies born there had died.
He wrote, “Shortly afterwards, when in Cork, I went to Bessborough. It was a beautiful institution, built on to a lovely old house just before the war, and seemed to be well-run and spotlessly clean. I marched up and down and around about and could not make out what was wrong; at last I took a notion and stripped all the babies and, unusually for a Chief Medical Adviser, examined them.
“Every baby had some purulent infection of the skin and all had green diarrhoea, carefully covered up.
“There was obviously a staphylococcus infection about.
“Without any legal authority I closed the place down and sacked the matron, a nun, and also got rid of the medical officer.
“The deaths had been going on for years. They had done nothing.”
Dr. Deeny had the place closed and completely disinfected. He wrote: “During the succeeding years, while many hundreds of babies were born each year, the number of deaths never exceeded single figures.”
Between August 1951 and June 1952, after Doctor Deeny’s intervention, fewer than 2% of infants died at the home.
The memoir of a midwife who worked at Bessborough in Cork during the 1950s also recounts the horrors she witnessed at the mother and baby home.
In her 1998 book, ‘The Light in the Window,’ June Goulding describes the home in Blackrock, Cork City, as “a secret penitential jail.” She recounts how mothers were not allowed pain relief during labor.
She says that at her first Bessborough birth, she asked someone at the hospital what painkiller were used in labor.
“Nobody gets any here, nurse, They just have to suffer,” she was told.
The nun who ran the labor ward in 1951 forbad any “moaning and screaming” during childbirth. None of the mothers was allowed to talk to one another or to the nurses at the home. They were also expected to wet-nurse other women’s babies, reports the Irish Examiner.
When she asked why she could not access needles to stitch women who had been torn during childbirth, she was told: “I’m afraid, nurse, the key to that cabinet has never been handed over. Girls must suffer their pain and put up with the pain of being torn – she [the nun] says they should atone for their sin.”
The women all wore a uniform dress and were forbidden to wear bras, which would have provided comfort to lactating women. Women who developed abscesses from breast-feeding were also denied penicillin.
Goulding says that she once saw a young girl with a suppurating abscess trying to breastfeed a tiny infant. “The fact that she would have needed three hands to successfully complete this task was a minor obstacle compared to the obvious agony on her face....I had never before seen such an abscess that had actually created such an enormous wound."
The girls who could not make donations to the Sacred Heart order would have to spend three years after their babies were born cleaning and working on the lands around the home to “make amends” for their pregnancy and their children were usually taken from them and given up for adoption or sent to orphanages.
Only girls from rich families who could afford to pay £100 were allowed to leave after 10 days, but the majority had nowhere to go.
“Having a baby out of wedlock was such a taboo subject at the time that often these [rich] women did not even tell their husband that their daughter was pregnant,” wrote Goulding.
She said the babies’ fathers were never taken to task by society, but most of the them did not even know if a woman was pregnant, as it would have “been too shameful” for the women to tell them.
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